I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the wonderful cartoonist Ronald Searle, who passed away at the start of the year at the ripe old age of 91.
I first came across his irreverent, hilarious work when I in my second year at Coleraine Inst. There was a book of his work in the library, including his drawings from the War in Burma and inevitably the St. Trinian’s girls. I was immediately smitten with his comic invention and his inventive, stretchy and scratchy drawing style.
My favourite was a cross-eyed mare standing chewing on a wildflower in an overgrown meadow, captioned ‘Idiot Horse Labouring Under the Misapprehension That It Is Representative of Nature’.
I was all ready for a big art weekend in London in February 2010 - I was going to see the Van Gogh drawings and letters at the Royal Academy, but I also wanted (probably more) to see the Ronald Searle retrospective at the Cartoon Museum, laid on to celebrate his 90th birthday. The Ash Cloud put a spanner in all of those works, and I was grounded.
The papers were full of obituaries and tributes in the last week or so, but my favourite story was from Gerald Scarfe, himself perhaps the greatest of the legions of cartoon geniuses from this part of the world. Scarfe idolised Searle as a teenager. On a number of occasions, he had cycled from his home in Hampstead all the way over to Searle’s house in Bayswater and stood before his big green door, unable to overcome his nerves and push the bell.
Many years later, Scarfe’s wife (Jane Asher) threw a secret birthday party for him in an exclusive restaurant in Provence. When they entered, he found that the only two other people in the place were Ronald Searle and his wife, who happened to live nearby.
“A beautiful little package sat on the table, all done up with ribbon. I said: ‘Oh, is this for me?’ And Ronald said: ‘Yeah, it’s nothing.’ So I opened it, and there was a brass doorbell with a note saying ‘Please ring any time’.”